Life Through a PRISM

If you’ve been following any U.S. news source at all in the past 24 to 48 hours, you’ve heard about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping of  customers from fifty U.S. companies including Google, Verizon, Skype, and Facebook. Understandably, there’s a large number of Americans who are appalled that the government can so casually breach privacy in the name of national security. What’s disturbing, though, is that there are people who can defend this behavior without a second thought. Mashable Op-ed columnist Todd Wasserman, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, and President Obama have all downplayed the negative effects of this program and asserted that only terrorists and wrongdoers should be scared.

Todd Wasserman’s piece, “You’re Being Monitored All the Time–Deal With It,” is a half-hearted attempt at comforting readers about the situation. Noting that, “Facebook has an intimate knowledge of your preferences and the people in your life,” and has “the ability to possibly take into account your offline shopping as well and serve you up to advertisers…for better targeting,” Wasserman acts as if nobody who uses Facebook has any problem with its practices. There are plenty of users who would rather Facebook not sell their data to these advertisers, but depend on it as a communication tool. If Facebook offered a way to opt-out of this data sharing in exchange for limited use of its features, or even an opt-in, where the most efficient Facebook users could earn small amounts of money as a kick back in exchange for their personal data, Wasserman might have a valid argument. Even if we put personal information out there on services like Google, Facebook, and Skype, we as consumers should be made fully aware of whether or not we can trust them with this information before we sign up.* If we can trust them beyond a shadow of a doubt, which doesn’t seem likely, part of that trust should include an assurance that they won’t collude with government agencies unless specific content is reported as harmful or dangerous.

Wasserman goes on to explain PRISM as “the online equivalent of [surveillance] cameras,” citing the capture of the Boston Marathon bombers as a reason that, “the vast majority of the info will never be used for anything, but a very small percentage may be immensely helpful.” Helpful in what way, exactly? Of course the surveillance cameras aided in the identification and eventual capture of the Tsarnev brothers, but it still would have been possible without them. The problem with Wasserman’s argument is that the definition of “terrorist,” is so amorphous that we won’t always know what the NSA is looking for. There have been scores of peaceful protesters on FBI watchlists for decades, so the thought that only violent criminals get spied on is incredibly naive. The internet isn’t like a street corner where a camera can catch someone about to detonate an explosive, it’s a place where people share ideas. If those ideas happen to run counter to the interests of the U.S. government, don’t you think the NSA would take a peek? Non-violent Occupy camps were being watched, so it’s not much of a stretch to think that online activist hubs would be monitored as well.

My Congressman, C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, a ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, offered a paltry defense of PRISM. “The FISA business records authorities are used to track foreign intelligence threats and international terrorists. This  information does not include the content of anyone’s conversations and does not reveal any individual or organization names,” he said. This statement raises more questions than it answers. First, who is a terrorist? Are they watching militants in Afghanistan, white supremacists in Oklahoma, or some bored kid in a basement who has just downloaded a PDF of the Anarchist Cookbook and isn’t going to do anything with it? If it doesn’t reveal names or content, how does it effectively root out threats? WikiLeaks’ exposure of several atrocities committed by the U.S. Military in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the 2007 Baghdad airstrike, and the 2009 Granai airstrike, which both killed hundreds of innocent civilians, would undoubtedly be classified an intelligence threat. So, if a whistleblower like Bradley Manning got three years of detention without trial before PRISM, there looks to be little hope that anyone with similar information about more recent events would even be heard from under PRISM.

President Obama has said that PRISM “does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the U.S.” That quells my problems with the handling of  Manning and Occupy, doesn’t it? I wish it did. I was overjoyed in 2009 when I heard that Guantanamo would be closed and  that the Department of Justice under Eric Holder would no longer waste federal resources raiding medical cannabis dispensaries, but four years later, here we are. Guantanamo is open, dispensaries have been shut down, and I’m one of many former supporters who has very little trust left for the man in the White House. This doesn’t mean that I think the government is reading and listening in on every mundane conversation that we’re having, but as an activist, it’s healthy to maintain a certain amount of skepticism. It’s this questioning and righteous indignation that keeps our civil rights and liberties in tact, so we can’t afford to let up on it now.

*We should really read those Terms and Conditions agreements.

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency. The first use was in September 1966, replacing an older seal which was used briefly. For more information, see here and here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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